“In Modi, Savarkar Meets Twitter, and Falls in Love”: An Interview With Pankaj Mishra

28 January, 2017

Pankaj Mishra is a writer and novelist whose essays on politics and literature have appeared in publications such as The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Guardian and Granta. He is also the author of several books, including An End to Suffering: The Buddha in The World, published in 2004; From the Ruins of the Empire: The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia, published in 2012; and A Great Clamour: Encounters With China and its Neighbours, published in 2013. In his latest book, Age of Anger, Mishra discusses the ongoing rightward shift in global politics, and the rise of nationalism in both India and the West.

Surabhi Kanga, an assistant editor with Vantage, interviewed Mishra about his book over the phone and later over email. They discussed the value of studying historical parallels, the relationship between Hindu, German and Italian nationalism, as well as the influence of European thought on the manner in which leaders such as Mohandas Gandhi and VD Savarkar perceived power.

Surabhi Kanga: What do you define as the age of anger and why did you choose to call it that?

Pankaj Mishra: There is obviously something that is manifesting in political behaviour right now—in the way that electorates have voted for people like Donald Trump, or for completely unwise policies like Brexit, and of course, for Mr Narendra Modi in India. It is increasingly present in the way people behave with each other in public or on social media—we have entered an age in which anger is the most dominant emotion, and more dominant than any other emotions. Compassion, sympathy—a lot of these other emotions through which we identify as human beings are not as much in evidence as anger.

SK: In the book, you suggest that this anger is not new, drawing parallels between recent political developments across the world and Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth century. You focus in particular, on the rage that was building up in Germany and France at that time. What is the significance of studying these parallels?

PM: Well, any attempt at drawing historical parallels is meant to illuminate the situation we are in, but also to clear things, to enrich things. For the last decade-and-a-half, since 9/11, we have been obsessed with locating the sources of militant violence in a particular religion, in Islam. This is complete absurdity. It is something we have wasted a lot of time and energy on.

For that reason, we find ourselves intellectually unprepared for a lot of things that have suddenly happened in countries such as the United States and Britain. These nations have constantly presented themselves—their politicians, their writers, their journalists—as representing the best of modernity, now fighting the Islamic barbarians. Yet, suddenly, these cultures are throwing up demagogues like Donald Trump. I think people are surprised because they never expected something like this to happen.

What I’m trying to say by invoking these parallels to the nineteenth century is that this has always happened; this is the norm rather than the exception. After 1945, Europe had been levelled to the ground. It had to reconstruct its economy, the industry, and society—rebuild the nation states. And for that reason, what you saw for much of modern history, the violence, the war—Europe was safe from that for some time. But now, history is restarting and it’s time to think again about its violent streak. That is the point of bringing in these examples—to remind people who inhabit this particular social and economic situation that other people have also inhabited it in the past. The things that happened to them are going to happen again. And the solution for that is not to be sought in religion or tradition or culture.

SK: You dismiss the obsession with locating the source of extremist violence in Islam, and reject the notion that is restricted to a religion. Some of this is mirrored in a moment you refer to, in which Timothy McVeigh, the 1995 Oklahoma bomber, and Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, who orchestrated the first attack on the World Trade Centre in 1993, meet in prison. Later, Yousef says of McVeigh that he had never met anyone who has “so similar a personality” to his own.

PM: One thing that I’m insisting on throughout the book is that we should not think of a modern world as constituted by difference, especially religious difference. When you think about Islamic extremism, you are trying to identify a particular religion or a particular culture, a particular way of relating with the world that is entirely different from everyone else’s way of relating to the world. This is a huge fallacy.

What I’m insisting on, is similarity—that in a homogenous world, we are made more alike. The reason I brought in the account of McVeigh, a right nationalist, and Yousef, an Al-Qaeda member, was to emphasise this similarity. If those two can meet and realise they have more in common with each other, in the way that they are disaffected—it shows how identity becomes interchangeable. If you look up what Anders Behring Breivik [who, on 22 July 2011, detonated a bomb, killing eight people, and then shot 69 people, in Norway] was saying in his long speech, you will find an incredible amount of similarity between what this Norwegian fellow—a right nationalist again—[says] and the kind of ideas that are espoused any number of Islamic preachers, as well as Hindu fanatics: a hatred of women, a hatred of minorities, a hatred of liberals, a hatred of multiculturalism.

I think we are doing ourselves an intellectual injury when we confine this discussion to either Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, or even Christianity for that matter. We need to think about the modern world in terms of similarity and acknowledge the fact that politics, economy, and human desire have become increasingly homogenous around the world. Therefore, the sources of anger are also to be located in the same phenomena, and not in traditional religion.

SK: Do you think the resurgence of the far-right, especially in India and America, has to do with a resistance to the way that society is changing, and subsequently, how the formerly powerful are losing power?

PM: Yes, a powerful component in the right-wing surge in both India and the US is the rage and frustration of formerly powerful people—white Americans, or upper-caste Hindus. They have managed to see and present themselves as victims of people traditionally dominated by them, even though the actual power shifts in favour of the weak have been very small. But then, if you have enjoyed a lot of power without much challenge, then the smallest change can feel very threatening and the horizon can suddenly seem full of enemies—assertive women, African-Americans, Muslims, Chinese—the list keeps growing.

SK: You describe Germany when it was inspired by the thinker Johann Gottfried Herder and the concept of “volk”—the idea of a simple nation, with a common identity—was taking root. There is a parallel between that and the rise of Hindu nationalism.

PM: I think the idea of a “national people” is something that was first formulated in Germany in response to the claim of universal cosmopolitanism, which was made by the French Enlightenment, and then of course, spread far and wide by the French revolutionaries and Napolean’s army. It was a defensive reaction to something that was perceived as threatening. I also make the point that German nationalism as it developed then, borrowed from its enemy. It ended up borrowing from a wide form of enemies, the idea of building a strong state or the idea of having a proper army. It did not confine itself to romanticising the idea of the people.

Hindu nationalism basically [grew through] a similar kind of mimicry. It is similarly deceptive. It is again, trying to formulate, organise and mobilise people. The only way in which it can do so is by defining the people against something else. They found this “Other,” the necessary enemy, in the Muslims. As the same time, they borrow from what they think are the Muslim’s martial qualities. If you read Savarkar, he is full of a kind of envious admiration for what he thinks is the militant quality of Islam. You see this over and over again among Hindu nationalists. They suffer from an inferiority complex before something they value: something militarily strong, or something muscular, or something they feel that Hindus lack.

It is a sort of a defensive reaction. In trying to posit this whole idea of “pure sacred people,” they basically repeat all the pathologies of war: to borrow, to take hold of a particular community and identify them as enemies. It’s very much an ideology built by ressentiment and hatred, and that’s why it’s so dangerous. And not only Hindu nationalism, but controlled forms of nationalism, which derive their definition from organic concepts of territory and land and soil—they are very treacherous.

Hindu nationalism had been a fringe force in Indian politics for a very long time, and for most of independent India’s history. Why did it erupt now? Flashes of ultra-nationalism or hyper-nationalism, why do they erupt? It’s because they come into contact with certain very conducive social and economic crises, where a feeling of inadequacy is extremely widespread. We’re not just talking about patriotism, or about feelings of inferiority here, we’re talking about social inequality, economic inequality, and cultural inequality. The feeling that only some people in society have social capital or cultural capital, and that they also happen to have more money. Demagogues emerge to capitalise on these fears and anxieties.

This particular kind of nationalism gets activated when crises of the kind that we are now experiencing—pretty much universally—arrive. That is one reason for the resurgence of the far-right, and the resurgence of this project to remake the sovereign people that you are now seeing.

SK: The roots of Hindu nationalism can be traced to Giuseppe Mazzini, the Italian revolutionary who promoted the idea of a purified, united nation. As you point out, Mazzini went on to influence Mohandas Gandhi, Bipin Chandra Pal and Savarkar, among other Indian nationalists at the time. You write that it was easy for Gandhi and Savarkar to appropriate Mazzini’s ideas of nationalism because they were upper-caste Hindu men who could imagine a unified India, unlike BR Ambedkar, who resisted the idea of even a unified Hinduism.

PM: The interesting thing about the nationalism of the nineteenth century is that a lot of these people were in exile, they were expatriates. [The Polish writer Adam] Mickiewicz didn’t see much of Poland and lived most of his life abroad. These were people of a certain education, middle-class to upper-class, [who] could live in places like Paris and London, fantasising about power, about creating entire nations and an entire people with pure will.

This is also why it’s essential to see that power today is related to sanctifying the human will—it’s a very masculine project, the whole project of nationalism. And this is where those like Savarkar—and all these upper-caste Hindus who also are privileged enough to travel abroad, to come into contact with Western and European ideas—start to fantasise about a nation that is under their command. But like the Italians, they are from an incredibly diverse country with an incredibly diverse population.

One reason for the hatred-driven nationalism, in both Italy and India, is the frustration of people who do not find the right ingredients for the kind of nation they want to build. You see in their careers a kind of escalating frustration. They lead their lives full of anger.

SK: Although Gandhi and Savarkar were both influenced by Mazzini, they had very different visions of the Hindu nation.

PM: The crucial difference is that Savarkar’s notion of nationalism or of political power is very much directed by the “other.”  He is not really concerned with living a life, he is not really concerned with spirituality. He speaks about Hindu nationalism as a cult, and yet, he’s deeply secular. Secular in the way that he makes no room for the transcendent in his worldview. Whereas with Gandhi, if you can call him a nationalist—I don’t—you can tell that he is engaged in politics, but is concerned about spiritual hygiene first and foremost. He is concerned about the individual who is fighting for a political cause.

One [referring to Savarkar] thinks of society and politics as a power play—you seek power, you become strong, you identify the enemy, and you also learn from the enemy. Gandhi, on the other hand, is very clear in his belief that the enemy has nothing to teach you. [Gandhi suggests that] what we need to do is reject these notions of power, this particular notion of politics, and engage in self-purification. Whether you agree with it or not, in a way, [Gandhi’s] project is definitely less violent.

Gandhi said that if you want to dominate, then dominate yourself, your ugly desires, your inner demons. If you are going to live in a violent society, then why not internalise that violence? In many ways, he was a sort of radical figure.

SK: Could you talk about the relationship between the nationalism of Savarkar and Modi? What are some historical parallels to the emergence of the Hindu right in India?

PM: The Hindu right, as I argue in the book, comes out of a nineteenth century European fantasy of the purified nation-state and people, whose glorious past ought to be retrieved in the future. Modi, with his hero-worship of Savarkar, obviously follows in that tradition. But what accounts for his success is a confluence of political and economic factors: an economic crisis, slowing growth, rising aspirations, an old political elite without conviction and integrity, and his own canny understanding of digital technology as a builder of new communities of belief. In Modi, Savarkar meets Twitter, and falls in love.

SK: What are we not able to explain about this age through historical parallels, if anything?

PM: There are many new factors in play right now, which did not exist in the late nineteenth century and the early twentieth century. The most unpredictable factor is the rise of a kind of amoral individualism. Individualism existed previously but it was always under certain constraining influences, either of the nation state or social structures, starting with the family, the community, the church.

But now quite a lot of those older social systems of solidarity have started to break down, or are broken down entirely in many countries. In large parts of Iraq, Syria, and Libya, there are no forms of social solidarity left; even the mosques have disappeared. At least the mosques were a place where people could come together, organise, and assemble with their community. What you see is a kind of an anarchic individualism, and we have started to reckon with this phenomenon. I think our historical violence can help us respond to and talk about this. Earlier, the nation states were very strong, and there were many other layers of society that could act as structures of social solidarity. But now, to use a phrase from [the writer] Arundhati Roy, we’ve become mobile republics. That’s a really big shift.

Liberal modernity, as an ideal, has prepared the ground for its destruction. It unleashes these forces that really, in a way, are uncontrollable. The whole point of liberal modernity is that you’re autonomous, you have a self-interest, and you pursue that self-interest.  Somehow, the harmonisation of individual self-interests is supposed to create a common good. The moral constraints under which human beings have lived for centuries have been slowly fading, and that’s why we’ve come to find this explosion of grotesque images and violent speech on the internet, because a lot of ordinary moral constraints have been undermined.

SK: Given this dynamic, how is this age of anger treating the minorities and the marginalised?

PM: They are facing mass ostracism, if not elimination. You already see this horrible flow trending in large parts of the world—extensive ethnic cleansing, deportations. This is the culture taking root: people are seriously talking about the mass deportation of Muslims, mainstream politicians are talking about it in public. As a nation and as a people, when you cannot accommodate people with a certain skin colour, a different hair texture, something we thought was behind us, has returned. In the end, this project of building nation states or societies around power has continuously yielded incredibly ugly results. Narratives of sensitivity, empathy, compassion or solidarity—there are no political figures even talking about these issues right now. That’s why I said that someone like Pope Francis happens to be the most convincing public intellectual right now—politicians and intellectuals have very little credibility at the moment.

SK: In the introduction to the book, you say that you relied more on poets and novelists than on historians and sociologists to understand the world’s rightward shift. What is the role that these people have played historically in times of violence, and what role can they play now?

PM: Writers and poets, from Stendhal [the pen-name used by Marie-Henri Beyle] to [Leo] Tolstoy, were the most accurate witnesses to big historical shifts in the nineteenth century. They registered most keenly, the shock of the First World War and its implications for the future of our world. And they did all this as critics of society—against dominant political economies and mainstream bourgeois cultures.

Alas, their role has changed a great deal. Writing has become too professionalised, and writers are too averse to risking their ‘careers.’ It was revealing that the writers who led the protests against the Hindu goons, and were the first to return their awards, were some of the least professionalised writers in India. The sad thing is that we don’t even know what we have lost with this marginalising of intellectual and artistic life.

This interview has been edited and condensed. An earlier version of this interview misidentified the poet and writer Adam Mickiewicz as the writer Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz, due to a transcription error. The Caravan regrets the error.

Age of Anger: A History of the Present is published by Juggernaut Books. It is available in bookstores and on www.juggernaut.in. Hardback 432 pages, Rs 699